Writing Q&A 11: Unlikable characters; genre fiction vs. literary fiction
Published: December 5, 2006
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago.
Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
|My main character is an all-out jerk. Some have warned me that this might not go over well with readers. What do you think? |
When I think of memorable characters, more than a few are unlikable, such as Joy in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," a young woman with a wooden leg who is so bitter and angry, she's renamed herself Hulga for the ugliness of the name. Even worse is Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, a pompous man who has an unseemly interest in the preteen girls he calls "nymphets." Not necessarily the type of people I like to sit down with for coffee, but they certainly make for some interesting fiction.
Unlikable characters can be intriguing, but in order for such a character to work, writers have to uphold the same high standards that apply to all characters. Unpleasant characters must be as multidimensional as characters who are easier to like. Just as the heroic football quarterback isn't always heroic, neither is the skulking, evil slouch plotting plans of destruction every waking moment.
Once you make your jerk of a character believable, your next step is to make the reader care about him. You can do this by helping the reader understand the character, perhaps even experience some sympathy. In Nabokov's Lolita, Humbert Humbert's attraction to young Lolita is abhorrent. But Humbert Humbert is not depicted as a monster. He is a human with feelings the reader can recognize. One night, for example, Humbert Humbert stands outside his hotel room, where Lolita sleeps, and grapples with the disgust of his own desire. He wishes he could turn away from the door, leave the key at the desk and walk away from her. While not everyone deals with the extreme desire that Humbert Humbert does, this basic struggle--to want what we shouldn't--is very human.
Of course, unlikable characters don't have to be as extreme as Humbert Humbert. In O'Connor's "Good Country People," Joy is mean-spirited and has a dismal disposition. The reader cares about her, though, because of her vulnerability. She fantasizes that Manley Pointer, a door-to-door Bible salesman, falls for her, and she is willing to show him the intimate spot where her wooden leg joins on to her real leg. Her desire to connect is universal.
This is precisely what makes unpleasant characters compelling: they are too much like ourselves to ignore.
|What is the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction? How do I know what I'm writing?|
A genre is a category of literature, such as mystery, suspense, science fiction or horror. Each genre has its own conventions. Romance, for example, focuses on romantic love between two people and often ends positively. Generally, genre fiction tends to place value on entertainment and, as a result, it tends to be more popular with mass audiences.
Literary fiction, on the other hand, is a bit trickier to define. In general, it emphasizes meaning over entertainment. Literary fiction also aspires toward art. Of course, that abstract of "art" is where things get most tricky. What is art? In fiction it can be defined as interesting and deep manifestations of the elements of craft: dimensional characters, a pleasing arc of tension, evocative language and thematic purpose.
Of course, literary and genre fiction aren't exclusive of one another. A work of genre fiction can be literary as well. Jane Austin, for example, wrote literary romances such as Pride and Prejudice.
This issue becomes most important when you begin submitting your work. Some publishers embrace certain genres, while others don't. Look at books that have many qualities similar to your own work and see how those are classified.
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